A Reply to Russell Perkin: The Basis of Criticism

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Russell Perkin’s last post has raised some important questions. He expresses his sympathy with Deanne Bogdan’s realization “that literary experience could be negative as well as positive.” One of my questions would be: who decides what is negative or what is positive? On what basis do we decide that something is a positive or a negative experience. To pretend that one can answer that question without difficulty is the stance of ideological criticism, the posture of cultural studies, which assumes that the answer is more or less straightforward. Maybe it seems straightforward in certain instances, but even here I would emphasize the “seems.” It is the indispensable function of the liberal arts and their criticism that they require us to suspend any final decision that is based on an ideological assumption, left or right, feminist or patriarchal.

The compelling reasons for a defense of free speech, so eloquently made by Milton, and so lucidly and unassailably by Mill, speak to the very essence of the imaginative vision embodied in literature. The response to literature is not monolithic, but inevitably various–it demands and allows for a great variety of response–and this is inherent in its imaginative and therefore hypothetical nature. It means that a work may strike one person as sexist, and another as liberating and feminist–something that is evident even in the ongoing debates among feminists since the movement began.

One aspect of a work, experienced as negative to one person, may be experienced as positive by another. Sade is an excellent example; his work is, in my mind, unquestionably a part of a liberal culture and the arts, and yet I can see that much of it is hard not to judge as repugnant, and many would see his work as irredeemably obscene, misogynistic and dangerous to read, and therefore would seek to suppress it. And yet some of the most visionary poets of the last two centuries regard Sade as a prophet, not of misogyny, but of emancipation.

Let us ponder where the question raised by Bogdan can lead: it is very tempting to assume that we have the truth, and we know what is offensive and what is not: what is feminist and anti-feminist, what is racist and what isn’t, what is wrong and what is right. But where did we get the assumptions for any such conviction at all: that this is grotesque, and this the norm or goal? Presumably from some “myth to live by,” some vision embodied in religion, literature, philosophy, and the arts and science, the basis of liberal culture, the core of which is an informing vision that is available, not only in the ideas and emotions evoked in the experience of the arts, but in their underlying structures, their under-thought, their poetic and mythological underpinnings.

The concern about the bad or good experience that literature might afford is definitely not something that Frye ignored, not at all. Frye had no objections to feminist criticism; he had an objection to feminist criticism, or Marxist criticism, or minority criticism, or majority criticism, for that matter, becoming the basis, the arbiter of criticism.

The question Russell raises is a good one, and the beginnings of an answer, I think, is in the very passage he quotes from Frye:

Anything that emerges from the total experience of criticism to form part of a liberal education becomes, by virtue of that fact, part of the emancipated and humane community of culture, whatever its original reference. Thus liberal education liberates the works of culture themselves as well as the mind they educate.

This is Frye’s point about the nature of a liberal education and their core, the arts: art and literature, because they demand an imaginative response, are submitted to a different kind of judgment, which demands both engagement and detachment, not moral or ideological judgment.

Unfortunately, once you insist that a certain literary work can only evoke a “negative experience,” it is not hard to take the next step: to refuse to entertain any reading of that work except as an example of what one ought not to think or say. And then you have subordinated criticism to an ideological agenda, to a matter of belief. This is, unfortunately, what has taken place in many areas of literary criticism and scholarship today.

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2 thoughts on “A Reply to Russell Perkin: The Basis of Criticism

  1. Russell Perkin

    Joe, I find very little to disagree with in what you have written here. (And I especially share your enthusiasm for Mill. I teach On Liberty whenever I get the opportunity). Ultimately I think it comes down to a question of temperament: didn’t Frye somewhere describe himself as an Odyssey-critic, inclined towards romance and comedy as opposed to tragedy? I must be too inclined to pessimism!

    I agree with you about not subordinating works to ideological criticism. The work, the author, not the student, and not the teacher, should be the voice that is heard in the classroom. But the nagging point that Bogdan raises for me is that, to quote her again “the hypothetical dimension of literature notwithstanding, literature does say things.” It doesn’t entirely leave behind what Frye calls “the original reference,” though of course it cannot be reduced to that either.

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  2. Adam James Bradley

    Joe has hit on what I believe is the real problem with critical theory; that the logical end point of ideological criticism is a disdain for literature. How can it not be so? Identifying power structures a la Foucault or searching for Marxist class inequalities inevitably leads to an identification of the problems inherent in a text. Apply this model enough times to a text from enough ideological views and what is left? This to me is the number one argument against this type of inductive criticism. If I begin with an ideology and then use the tenets of that philosophy as a lens through which to see a text, then not only will I inevitably see whatever I’m looking for but also it will eventually become the reality of that text. If this is misogyny or anti-semitism or some other disdainful ethos, then it becomes a necessary action to dismiss that text as being “only” of that ethos. I have always wondered if this is a conscious act or simply a necessary outcome of such an approach. Regardless of the answer to that question or whether critics admit to this practice, the necessary result is that the text ends up becoming a secondary object to the soapbox that the critic puts himself on, yelling to the crowd about how terrible said text is. It reminds me of how the religious right creates demons out of everything to further their cause. By identifying all as being evil then they can laud their own practices as being holy. I believe that critical theory began with good intentions but has ended up being the right wing faction of literary criticism, the bullying older brother that finds whatever he is looking for and shouts about it.

    There is a speech in the movie PI, directed by Darren Aronofsky where the aged professor tells his genius student that if you spend all of your time looking to find a certain number or type of construct that you will begin to see it everywhere in nature, the world will bend to your lens. 56 steps up the library, 56 petals on a sunflower, 56 seconds for the elevator to arrive, if you look at the world from a designated view, in this case the using the number 56 as a guide, the world will present itself to you from within that view. The point made here is in regard to mathematics but the idea is very important to literary studies. Simply, that you will find whatever you are looking for if you look hard enough. Apply this to a text and before you know it, it is the critic that is overlaying assumptions on that text and the soul of the work of art has been lost. This ‘loss of soul’ as I call it occurs at the moment when the critic preaches to the text instead of listening to it. It is the moment that they think of the text as a right not a privilege; it is the moment that they force themselves into the pages instead of letting the pages sink into them. It is this act that makes me wonder if literary critics actually like literature.

    These questions apply to all of us. Do you remember when you first read something that really moved you? Do you still get twisted up inside when you re-read that piece of art that first made you want to spend your working life within the pages of books or in a classroom? I ask this of all of you, this is not simply a question for the critical theorists. Do you still like poetry or has it simply become work? Does the ideology you apply, because even Frye’s notions on some level are ideologies, allow you the room to enjoy literature. Do you still get moved? I can say that it was first Joyce and then Beckett that changed my life when I was sixteen years old. I had no idea that you were even allowed to destroy the lives of your characters like Joyce did in ‘The Dead’, or question the existence of Godot. When I read these words for the first time my world was forever changed. This is the power of words we so often forget. We criticize, we speculate and we write but do we still let ourselves fall in love with words? I can say with a certainty that the types of ideological approaches that critical theory employs will inevitably lead to a hatred of literature, but is ours any better? One of the things that I take from Frye is that by understanding the underlying structure of Literature we can suspend our ideological judgments and firstly ‘love the book’. After we experience this wonder is when we criticize. Critical Theory seems to skip this step, but it is a slippery slope and if we don’t stop and wonder at the sublimity of words then we will travel the same path. The paradox of this situation is that I believe that the critic can create in the same way that the artist does, that the critic himself can inspire wonder. But before he can do this he must sit in the wonder himself and then have a framework from which he can explain it to others. This to me is what Frye was trying to create, the Framework that a critic can use to describe his wonder. So for people to say they have ‘no time for Frye’, which a former professor of mine told me once, seems simply absurd until you realize that the critical theory had made him lose his love. That the inevitable path critical theory forced him to take was to end up hating the thing he was supposed to revere. This contradiction is why I believe critical theory to be flawed and is why I believe the critical theorists are so forceful with their craft. I believe it is the job and the responsibility of the critic to convey the wonder of words to everyone else, and how can this be accomplished if we don’t first sit and wonder.

    AJB

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